Dispatches from My Sick Bed #1: Polyglot vs. Multilingual

Hello everyone! Thanks for all your good wishes. I’m now a couple of weeks out from my surgery, and (knock on wood) so far seem to be recovering well. In fact, boredom is becoming a bigger problem than almost anything else — conveniently, italki is having another Language Challenge in the second half of October, and as I’ll still be on sick leave then, I’ve signed up! Last time felt good to me, and naturally so did earning some italki credits…

Anyway — last week, while my mobility was much more limited, I was listening to a lot of podcasts, especially because I had a ton of upper back pain when standing up and even when sitting upright in bed or on the couch. But podcasts, obviously I can put them on and just lie down and listen. One of the ones I’ve been catching up on is the Creative Language Learning Podcast, from two of my favorite language bloggers, Kerstin Hammes Cable and Lindsay Dow.

A recent episode recaps the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this past May. In one talk there, it was suggested that the word “polyglot” should mean someone who learns languages just for the fun of it. This is meant to be a more inclusive and friendly definition; many people question whether they know enough languages (or know them well enough) to belong at an event with the word “polyglot” in the title. That’s great. I’m down with that, because I do feel like a lot of polyglot stuff is super-elitist. I’m totally in favor of expanding the term so that you don’t feel like you need to speak seven languages at C2 level or whatever to be legit and included.

But this definition of a polyglot, as someone who learns languages because they just want to, is contrasted with a “multilingual,” that is, someone who learns languages because they have to: because of the realities of their family or community or country or economic situation.

This strikes me as an absurd, muddy, and useless distinction to make. (I did see a blog post a while ago that mentioned this, and went on a brief tweet rant — now is the time for the Extended Rant Remix, I guess!) Way to talk like you’re making things less elite and more welcoming on the one hand, and then pull something like this on the other. Polyglots: we learn languages for the love of it! Our motives aren’t tainted like multilinguals’: you’re learning them for commerce, because that’s just how people in your country grow up, for some other reason other than our pure thirst for knowledge! Many polyglots do learn languages for some of these same reasons, and ‘multilinguals’ might equally enjoy learning languages also for their own sake, which makes this distinction even more hilarious to me. It’s so ivory tower: we, the intellectuals! With our holy love for languages! Everyone else: with their crass low cultural reasons! It reminds me of people sneering at students studying something to improve their employment prospects — accounting or nursing or education or whatever — while the genuine, untainted intellectuals swan off, noses in the air, to study philosophy.

Seriously, what the hell? To me this just smacks of people still wanting to give themselves a glow of superiority. Which is, again, hilarious because in vast parts of the world, speaking more than one language is utterly unremarkable; it’s just how you get on; it’s just what you have to do. Both my parents are polyglots — or maybe you’d downgrade them to multlinguals, since multiple languages were something they needed to learn for cultural and economic reasons — but anyway, I don’t even know if they’d consider themselves as having an aptitude or special interest in languages; it’s just what they did.

This polyglot/multilingual dichotomy strikes me as even less useful because… it’s not like multilinguals don’t have experiences and techniques of learning languages that wouldn’t be relevant or helpful to polyglots! What is served by separating out these two groups? (Except, perhaps, the lofty ego of some polyglots.) For example, I’ve seen so many polyglot blogs talk about how motivation can be a problem, just getting down to studying and finding the time to study, etc. Well, who might have solid advice on productivity and buckling down to really get some face time with a language? People who have no choice but to learn one: those multilinguals again. (Yes, many multilinguals grow up speaking multiple languages without necessarily a lot of deliberate study, although I think even in those cases they might have something useful to say about how to keep languages separate and not mix them up, etc.)

There are probably some functional differences between those who learn languages for fun (and perhaps without an opportunity to live in a setting where they need to use the language as a main method of communication) and those who are impelled by other reasons do things — there must be some academic research on it somewhere. Call the latter ‘involuntary polyglots’ or ‘situational polyglots’ or some other term to distinguish things, sure. But they’re all still polyglots. Or multilinguals. They’re all both terms! On an equal basis!

I do think it’s really good to demystify what being a polyglot means and to broaden the definition and make it less of an elite club (as it stands I still wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable going to any polyglot-branded event). But it’s rubbish to say you’re doing that while setting up another divide that is also false and elitist in itself.

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5 comments

  1. Wow, I feel honoured to have inspired such thought…though hopefully we didn’t give the impression of lofty thinking in the podcast itself. I’m very much in agreement with you that the motivation of language learning is not an indicator of the learner’s “intellectual value” as such. Like you said, people who learn another language out of necessity instead of choice are actually likely to do much better on commitment and achievement. In fact, I personally feel better when I DO have a straight “I’ve got to” reason..it’s wonderful to know how I’m going to use another language in future.

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    1. Nah, you and Lindsay were fine! You were both v. positive on the aspect of opening up the definition of who dares call themselves a polyglot, which I can totally get behind. The definition mentioned in that talk just inevitably made me think of who was *still* being left out and why, though, you know?

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      1. Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s only in the last 5ish years that I’d say I’ve started learning a language just for the fun of it, and discipline suddenly becomes an issue when before it wasn’t that bad. To imply that someone is in any way a more productive/disciplined person just because they choose to educate themselves about x, y or z is nonsense. After all, maybe we should all shut up and learn Java or something.

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  2. I find that distinction rather weird a well. I can see how having that distinction is useful in some cases, but I know plenty of people who grew up multilingual, for instance, and then also learn languages for fun…
    I’m glad the italki challenge is giving you something other than recovery to think about! It can be so boring when you need to give your body time to get back to its usual state of working.

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